Mortgage Rates at All Time Low…Expected to Continue

The mortgage market has been going through a deflationary cycle recently. Since the housing bubble first started to burst in 2007, interest rates on mortgage loans have been falling like rocks.  Mortgage rates have hit fifty-year lows. Demand, however, remains very weak.

There are various questions about this phenomenon running through the financial and business sectors. There is much confusion about how demand could be so low with such attractive rates. According to the standard supply-side formula, low interest rates should spur borrowing and investment. What’s really happening is that the savings rate has risen higher in the past eight years. In fact, in the second quarter of 2009, the personal savings rate hit five percent.

Low mortgage rates plus an increased sense of frugality combined with tighter lending standards results in homeowners who either cannot refinance or buy a home, or they are afraid to take the risk on buying a new home and prefer to live frugally within their current dwellings. The tighter lending standards mean that even borrowers who would have previously qualified for refinancing may not be able to do so. Many borrowers have found their financial situation worse off, due to factors such as a reduced credit rating, lowered income, and other negative factors that make it more difficult for homeowners to refinance because they cannot meet the stricter standards.

It is not surprising that the credit crunch brought down mortgage rates. The fact that the Federal Reserve was purchasing mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac helped to keep rates down. During the height of the financial crisis, the money market was suddenly gutted as depositors withdrew their funds. Since banks essentially create credit by lending out large loans such as mortgages, the expansion of credit was abruptly halted and in fact drastically reversed within a short period.

The sudden contraction of credit resulted in interest rates nose-diving because there was a sudden decrease in the amount of mortgage debt owed as the rate of defaults rose. The defaults were largely the result of falling home prices and high levels of consumer debt. Mortgage defaults decreased the overall debt load because the massive waves of foreclosures effectively wiped out hundreds of mortgage loans. This made the credit contraction even worse, and the rapidly shrinking money supply spurred the Federal Reserve’s lowering interest rates in order to keep the money supply from shrinking even further.

Unfortunately, the money supply continues to shrink due to deflationary trends despite the Federal Reserve’s efforts. The newly risk-averse banks simply do not lend out the money generated by the Reserve. Nationally, especially in the hard-hit areas of California and Florida, mortgage defaults continue to increase. Although the money market has appeared to recover, the contraction of credit continues to shrink the overall availability of currency.

This has resulted in low mortgage rates because of incredible deflationary pressures, not necessarily because of decreased risk. Even once the Federal Reserve stopped buying mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, interest rates continued to fall. The deflationary trends have resulted in positive effects, however; the increased savings rate combined with the tighter standards have resulted in more consumers paying off their debts, with the salutary result that overall consumer debt levels in the United States have started decreasing.

In addition, there is a talk of a second wave of recession on the horizon. Whether the predictions are true or not, the negative sentiment makes already nervous lenders even tighter with their money. Why lend money at a risk when they can invest in government bonds and have a guaranteed profit?

All of the above notwithstanding, the low mortgage rates are continuing to stay low due to the continued credit contraction. Once the contraction bottoms out, mortgage rates should level off. They expected to remain low because of continued deflationary trends as the accumulated citizen and government debt is slowly paid off.